A.P. Chekhov - Champagne
IN the year in which my story begins I had a job at a little
station on one of our southwestern railways. Whether I had a gay
or a dull life at the station you can judge from the fact that
for fifteen miles round there was not one human habitation, not
one woman, not one decent tavern; and in those days I was young,
strong, hot-headed, giddy, and foolish. The only distraction I
could possibly find was in the windows of the passenger trains,
and in the vile vodka which the Jews drugged with thorn-apple.
Sometimes there would be a glimpse of a woman's head at a
carriage window, and one would stand like a statue without
breathing and stare at it until the train turned into an almost
invisible speck; or one would drink all one could of the
loathsome vodka till one was stupefied and did not feel the
passing of the long hours and days. Upon me, a native of the
north, the steppe produced the effect of a deserted Tatar
cemetery. In the summer the steppe with its solemn calm, the
monotonous chur of the grasshoppers, the transparent moonlight
from which one could not hide, reduced me to listless
melancholy; and in the winter the irreproachable whiteness of
the steppe, its cold distance, long nights, and howling wolves
oppressed me like a heavy nightmare. There were several people
living at the station: my wife and I, a deaf and scrofulous
telegraph clerk, and three watchmen. My assistant, a young man
who was in consumption, used to go for treatment to the town,
where he stayed for months at a time, leaving his duties to me
together with the right of pocketing his salary. I had no
children, no cake would have tempted visitors to come and see
me, and I could only visit other officials on the line, and that
no oftener than once a month.
I remember my wife and I saw the New Year in. We sat at table,
chewed lazily, and heard the deaf telegraph clerk monotonously
tapping on his apparatus in the next room. I had already drunk
five glasses of drugged vodka, and, propping my heavy head on my
fist, thought of my overpowering boredom from which there was no
escape, while my wife sat beside me and did not take her eyes
off me. She looked at me as no one can look but a woman who has
nothing in this world but a handsome husband. She loved me
madly, slavishly, and not merely my good looks, or my soul, but
my sins, my ill-humor and boredom, and even my cruelty when, in
drunken fury, not knowing how to vent my ill-humor, I tormented
her with reproaches.
In spite of the boredom which was consuming me, we were
preparing to see the New Year in with exceptional festiveness,
and were awaiting midnight with some impatience. The fact is, we
had in reserve two bottles of champagne, the real thing, with
the label of Veuve Clicquot; this treasure I had won the
previous autumn in a bet with the station-master of D. when I
was drinking with him at a christening. It sometimes happens
during a lesson in mathematics, when the very air is still with
boredom, a butterfly flutters into the class-room; the boys toss
their heads and begin watching its flight with interest, as
though they saw before them not a butterfly but something new
and strange; in the same way ordinary champagne, chancing to
come into our dreary station, roused us. We sat in silence
looking alternately at the clock and at the bottles.
When the hands pointed to five minutes to twelve I slowly began
uncorking a bottle. I don't know whether I was affected by the
vodka, or whether the bottle was wet, but all I remember is that
when the cork flew up to the ceiling with a bang, my bottle
slipped out of my hands and fell on the floor. Not more than a
glass of the wine was spilt, as I managed to catch the bottle
and put my thumb over the foaming neck.
"Well, may the New Year bring you happiness!" I said, filling
two glasses. "Drink!"
My wife took her glass and fixed her frightened eyes on me. Her
face was pale and wore a look of horror.
"Did you drop the bottle?" she asked.
"Yes. But what of that?"
"It's unlucky," she said, putting down her glass and turning
paler still. "It's a bad omen. It means that some misfortune
will happen to us this year."
"What a silly thing you are," I sighed. "You are a clever woman,
and yet you talk as much nonsense as an old nurse. Drink."
"God grant it is nonsense, but . . . something is sure to
happen! You'll see."
She did not even sip her glass, she moved away and sank into
thought. I uttered a few stale commonplaces about superstition,
drank half a bottle, paced up and down, and then went out of the
Outside there was the still frosty night in all its cold,
inhospitable beauty. The moon and two white fluffy clouds beside
it hung just over the station, motionless as though glued to the
spot, and looked as though waiting for something. A faint
transparent light came from them and touched the white earth
softly, as though afraid of wounding her modesty, and lighted up
everything -- the snowdrifts, the embankment. . . . It was
I walked along the railway embankment.
"Silly woman," I thought, looking at the sky spangled with
brilliant stars. "Even if one admits that omens sometimes tell
the truth, what evil can happen to us? The misfortunes we have
endured already, and which are facing us now, are so great that
it is difficult to imagine anything worse. What further harm can
you do a fish which has been caught and fried and served up with
A poplar covered with hoar frost looked in the bluish darkness
like a giant wrapt in a shroud. It looked at me sullenly and
dejectedly, as though like me it realized its loneliness. I
stood a long while looking at it.
"My youth is thrown away for nothing, like a useless cigarette
end," I went on musing. "My parents died when I was a little
child; I was expelled from the high school, I was born of a
noble family, but I have received neither education nor
breeding, and I have no more knowledge than the humblest
mechanic. I have no refuge, no relations, no friends, no work I
like. I am not fitted for anything, and in the prime of my
powers I am good for nothing but to be stuffed into this little
station; I have known nothing but trouble and failure all my
life. What can happen worse?"
Red lights came into sight in the distance. A train was moving
towards me. The slumbering steppe listened to the sound of it.
My thoughts were so bitter that it seemed to me that I was
thinking aloud and that the moan of the telegraph wire and the
rumble of the train were expressing my thoughts.
"What can happen worse? The loss of my wife?" I wondered. "Even
that is not terrible. It's no good hiding it from my conscience:
I don't love my wife. I married her when I was only a wretched
boy; now I am young and vigorous, and she has gone off and grown
older and sillier, stuffed from her head to her heels with
conventional ideas. What charm is there in her maudlin love, in
her hollow chest, in her lusterless eyes? I put up with her, but
I don't love her. What can happen? My youth is being wasted, as
the saying is, for a pinch of snuff. Women flit before my eyes
only in the carriage windows, like falling stars. Love I never
had and have not. My manhood, my courage, my power of feeling
are going to ruin. . . . Everything is being thrown away like
dirt, and all my wealth here in the steppe is not worth a
The train rushed past me with a roar and indifferently cast the
glow of its red lights upon me. I saw it stop by the green
lights of the station, stop for a minute and rumble off again.
After walking a mile and a half I went back. Melancholy thoughts
haunted me still. Painful as it was to me, yet I remember I
tried as it were to make my thoughts still gloomier and more
melancholy. You know people who are vain and not very clever
have moments when the consciousness that they are miserable
affords them positive satisfaction, and they even coquet with
their misery for their own entertainment. There was a great deal
of truth in what I thought, but there was also a great deal that
was absurd and conceited, and there was something boyishly
defiant in my question: "What could happen worse?"
"And what is there to happen?" I asked myself. "I think I have
endured everything. I've been ill, I've lost money, I get
reprimanded by my superiors every day, and I go hungry, and a
mad wolf has run into the station yard. What more is there? I
have been insulted, humiliated, . . . and I have insulted others
in my time. I have not been a criminal, it is true, but I don't
think I am capable of crime -- I am not afraid of being hauled
up for it."
The two little clouds had moved away from the moon and stood at
a little distance, looking as though they were whispering about
something which the moon must not know. A light breeze was
racing across the steppe, bringing the faint rumble of the
My wife met me at the doorway. Her eyes were laughing gaily and
her whole face was beaming with good-humor.
"There is news for you!" she whispered. "Make haste, go to your
room and put on your new coat; we have a visitor."
"Aunt Natalya Petrovna has just come by the train."
"What Natalya Petrovna?"
"The wife of my uncle Semyon Fyodoritch. You don't know her. She
is a very nice, good woman."
Probably I frowned, for my wife looked grave and whispered
"Of course it is queer her having come, but don't be cross,
Nikolay, and don't be hard on her. She is unhappy, you know;
Uncle Semyon Fyodoritch really is ill-natured and tyrannical, it
is difficult to live with him. She says she will only stay three
days with us, only till she gets a letter from her brother."
My wife whispered a great deal more nonsense to me about her
despotic uncle; about the weakness of mankind in general and of
young wives in particular; about its being our duty to give
shelter to all, even great sinners, and so on. Unable to make
head or tail of it, I put on my new coat and went to make
acquaintance with my "aunt."
A little woman with large black eyes was sitting at the table.
My table, the gray walls, my roughly-made sofa, everything to
the tiniest grain of dust seemed to have grown younger and more
cheerful in the presence of this new, young, beautiful, and
dissolute creature, who had a most subtle perfume about her. And
that our visitor was a lady of easy virtue I could see from her
smile, from her scent, from the peculiar way in which she
glanced and made play with her eyelashes, from the tone in which
she talked with my wife -- a respectable woman. There was no
need to tell me she had run away from her husband, that her
husband was old and despotic, that she was good-natured and
lively; I took it all in at the first glance. Indeed, it is
doubtful whether there is a man in all Europe who cannot spot at
the first glance a woman of a certain temperament.
"I did not know I had such a big nephew!" said my aunt, holding
out her hand to me and smiling.
"And I did not know I had such a pretty aunt," I answered.
Supper began over again. The cork flew with a bang out of the
second bottle, and my aunt swallowed half a glassful at a gulp,
and when my wife went out of the room for a moment my aunt did
not scruple to drain a full glass. I was drunk both with the
wine and with the presence of a woman. Do you remember the song?
"Eyes black as pitch, eyes full of passion,
Eyes burning bright and beautiful,
How I love you,
How I fear you!"
I don't remember what happened next. Anyone who wants to know
how love begins may read novels and long stories; I will put it
shortly and in the words of the same silly song:
"It was an evil hour
When first I met you."
Everything went head over heels to the devil. I remember a
fearful, frantic whirlwind which sent me flying round like a
feather. It lasted a long while, and swept from the face of the
earth my wife and my aunt herself and my strength. From the
little station in the steppe it has flung me, as you see, into
this dark street.
Now tell me what further evil can happen to me?